- A Day at the Spa
If the academy were a spa, then Queer/Early/Modern would be its hot-rock massage. At once painful and invigorating, this brilliant book destroys heteronormative historiography with a force belied only by its exquisitely beautiful prose. Carla Freccero's intervention into the blindness attendant on our relations to desires of the past is crucial at the current political moment, both inside and outside the academy. The book addresses not only how the present thinks of the past but also how present and past get designated and valorized as such. Queer/Early/Modern's most sustained argument is that questions of temporality are crucial to reconsidering sexuality, that one must queer time in order to queer its desires.
Thus the book's title slashes apart terms like the early modern that aim at teleological coherence. The process of queering early modern studies implies unthinking our dominant modes of historiography. In thinking through this unthinking, Freccero acknowledges her intellectual debts to queer theorists like Jonathan Goldberg and Carolyn Dinshaw, but also, more fittingly, to an earlier version of herself. Queer/Early/Modern in many ways reworks and extends the crucial insights brought to us in the introduction of Premodern Sexualities, coedited by Freccero and Louise Fradenburg.1 Both books wonder about the relation between sexuality and modernity, modernity and premodernity, sexuality and premodernity, this time and that one. And like that introduction, Queer/Early/Modern works its arguments through the paradigmatic discourse of working through—psychoanalysis. [End Page 577]
Arguing "for the possibility that reading historically may mean reading against what is conventionally referred to as history" (4), Queer/Early/Modern seizes on psychoanalysis both because "it argues for an eccentric relation between events and their effects" and because "it often challenges the empiricism of what qualifies as an event itself" (4). Clearly, the stakes of this argument are high. It seeks not only to challenge conventional historiography but also to assert that such conventions are implicitly heteronormative in their insistence on straight (rather than eccentric) causality and temporality. Freccero undertakes—in infinitely subtle, infinitely brilliant ways—to read queerness simultaneously into sexuality and temporality, reiterating that these two projects are inalienably linked to one another. Her texts range from Petrarch's Canzoniere to the Pacte civil de solidarité (PACS) legislation in France, from Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron to Michel Foucault and reworkings of Foucault, from Boccaccio's Decameron to the hauntings of the national imaginary produced by the Brandon Teena case. As this brief list makes clear, Freccero insistently links past and present, current and remote, high literary and journalistic, to produce a mélange that exemplifies the process of metaleptic reading, with "its willful perversion of notions of temporal propriety and the reproductive order of things" (2).
As an instance of these metaleptic desires, Queer/Early/Modern juxtaposes a consideration of Boccacio's Decameron with two versions of David Halperin's essay "How to Do the History of Homosexuality." Citing the standard regurgitation of Foucault's distinction between sexual acts and identities, Halperin's texts make an epistemological argument against queer early modernity. Freccero performs her own reading of the Apuleius and Boccaccio texts cited by Halperin, and concludes that if "Foucault's project . . . was in part . . . to critique modernity's production of a field of truth called sexuality, then . . . the project Halperin outlines here [is] distinctively anti-Foucauldian in that it seems to encourage historians of the pre- and early modern not to take up the . . . project of producing a history of sexuality . . . but instead . . . to produce truths about people of the past through sex" (48). This critique of one of the most influential commentators on one of the most influential commentators on the modern history of sexuality highlights this book's ability to talk back to power and its commitment to intellectual eccentricity. Never charting a straight path, Queer/Early/Modern instead curves its way through difficulties, looking awry at ideas now hailed as received wisdom.
Throughout the book, Freccero attempts to sketch alternative histories of desire and delineate alternative historiographies of pleasure. The text...